Saturday, January 09, 2010

Book Review: There is a God by Antony Flew

There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His MindThere is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind is Antony Flew’s personal biographical account of his intellectual journey from the belief that there is no God to the belief that there is a God. The narrative is both fascinating and very readable. The purpose this review is to provide a brief synopsis and to highlight some of Flew’s reflections.

In part one, My Denial of the Divine, Flew talks about his atheism. In part two, My Discovery of the Divine, Flew talks about his reasons for believing that God exists. Flew puts in concisely in the introduction: “In brief, as the title says, I now believe there is a God!” (252-58)* The goal of his book is to chart his intellectual pilgrimage. He emphasizes the fact that this is strictly the result of considering the arguments and evidence. He says: “For the record, then, I want to lay to rest all those rumors that have me placing Pascalian bets.” (267-73)

In chapter one, The Creation of an Atheist, Flew lays out a bit of the history of his former atheism. He explains that he never felt any desire to commune with God, even though he said prayers, went to church, engaged in various religious practices and his father was a Methodist minister. But one of his early reasons for conversion to atheism was the problem of evil. Even so, he maintained an interest in religion, even being a regular participant in C.S. Lewis's Socratic Club at Oxford. Flew elaborates:
…my long-standing interest in religion was never anything other than prudential, moral, or simply curious. I say prudential since, if there is a God or gods who involve themselves in human affairs, it would be madly imprudent not to try as far as possible to keep on the right side of them. (508-15)
In chapter two, Where the Evidence Leads, Flew discusses his philosophical career, complete with accomplishments, embarrassments, and various changes of mind. Chapter three, Atheism Calmly Considered, continues to detail his atheist career, with insights and reflections on his substantial contributions to philosophy and the atheist position. He briefly recounts his numerous debates with leading Christian thinkers, such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and William Lane Craig.

Flew also retells what he calls his "New York debut" in 2004. In what was to be a debate involving Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder and Scottish philosopher John Haldane, Flew amazes everyone:
To the surprise of all concerned, I announced at the start that I now accepted the existence of a God. What might have been an intense exchange of opposing views ended up as a joint exploration of the developments in modern science that seemed to point to a higher Intelligence. (973-79)
Part two of the book begins with chapter four, A Pilgrimage of Reason. Flew challenges dogmatic atheism, pointing out that preconceived theories shape the way we view evidence instead of letting the evidence shape the theories. (1059-66) He challenges: “I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’” (1080-86)

Then Flew lays his cards on the table:
I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe's intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. (1087-92)
And he explains the reasons for his views:
Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature. But it is not science alone that has guided me. I have also been helped by a renewed study of the classical philosophical arguments." (1087-92)
Flew repeats his mantra that “we must follow the argument wherever it leads.”(1093-99) He emphasizes the role of reason in his journey:
I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. […] In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith. (1136-40)
In chapter five, Who Wrote the Laws of Nature, the author begins to expand on the reasons for his belief. “Perhaps the most popular and intuitively plausible argument for God’s existence is the so-called argument from design.” (1148-54) This was not an argument Flew liked: “Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to see that, when correctly formatted, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God." (1148-54)

Flew splits the design argument into two prongs: “The first is the question of the origin of the laws of nature and the related insights of eminent modern scientists. The second is the question of the origin of life and reproduction.” (1148-54) Throughout the chapter the author quotes statements from Einstein, Max Plank, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Paul Dirak, and others who also saw good reason to infer an intelligent cause behind the apparent design of life and the cosmos.

Did the Universe Know We Were Coming? is the appropriate title for chapter six, in which Flew elaborates on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life; the anthropic cosmological principle. Flew explains that “virtually no major scientist today claims that the fine tuning was purely a result of chance factors at work in a single universe.” (1336-43) He continues: “What is especially important here is the fact that the existence of a multiverse does not explain the origin of the laws of nature.” (1380-86) He explains that resorting to a multiverse hypothesis does not eliminate the problem that faces the atheist. “So multiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origin of the laws of nature. And the only viable explanation here is the divine Mind.” (1395-98)

Chapter seven is entitled How Did Life Go Live? Here Flew shows that the origin of life question needs an adequate explanation, and he does not find a satisfactory naturalistic solution: “...the age of the universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the job done.” (1407-13) But there is more to the question than just living cells. Flew is also looking at such factors as consciousness, DNA coding, and self-replication:
The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem. (1414-20)
Flew observes that “Living matter possesses an inherent goal or end-centered organization that is nowhere present in the matter that preceded it.” (1414-20) He also observes, “but there is no law of nature that instructs matter to produce end-directed, self-replicating entities.” (1478-84) And so Flew concludes: “The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.” (1492-93)

In chapter eight Flew looks at modern cosmology: Did Something Come From Nothing? Flew explains that many years ago he was content in assuming an eternal universe, but no more: “the big-bang theory changed all that. If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning. This radically altered the situation.” (1530-36) The author describes the effect of new cosmological discoveries:
Modern cosmologists seemed just as disturbed as atheists about the potential theological implications of their work. Consequently, they devised influential escape routes that sought to preserve the nontheist status quo. These routes included the idea of the multiverse, numerous universes generated by endless vacuum fluctuation events, and Stephen Hawking’s notion of a self-contained universe. (1537-42)
Flew also expresses his opinion on the multiverse:
The postulation of multiple universes, I maintained, is a truly desperate alternative. […] It seems a little like the case of a schoolboy whose teacher doesn't believe his dog ate his homework, so he replaces the first version with the story that a pack of dogs – too many to count – ate his homework. (1537-42)
One more barrier that came down for Flew is described in chapter nine: Finding Space for God. Here the author explains his change of mind about the coherence of the idea of God being a person without a body. He explains the philosophical arguments that persuaded him. Although brief, this chapter is another shining example of a man willing to change his mind.

In chapter ten, Open to Omnipotence, the author sums up his findings:
I must say again that the journey to my discovery of the Divine has thus far been a pilgrimage of reason. I have followed the argument where it has led me. And it has led me to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being. (1706-12)
Flew also concludes that, “the existence of God does not depend on the existence of warranted or unwarranted evil.” (1706-12) Notable, as this was one of his earliest reasons for embracing atheism.
This final chapter closes with an optimistic and open note by Flew: “Where do I go from here? In the first place, I am entirely open to learning more about the divine Reality, especially in the light of what we know about the history of nature.” (1713-19)
“Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not - yet. But who knows what could happen next?  Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?’” (1733-35)
The ten chapters of There is a God is followed by Appendix A, which is a critical appraisal of Dawkins, Dennett, Wolpert, Harris, and Stenger by Roy Abraham Varghese. Appendix B is a dialogue between N.T. Wright and Antony Flew on the self-revelation of God in human history. Both of these supplemental chapters provide very good insights from both Varghese and Wright. In answering Wright’s case for Christianity, Flew responds: “In point of fact, I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true.” (2002-8)

There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind is an extremely interesting read. Flew himself is a fascinating person, and his journey is one that atheists and theists alike can learn from.

*All citations are from the Kindle version of Anthony Flew, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. There is a page number calculator for these reference numbers, which are approximate (and an unfortunate drawback to e-books). This Kindle book was read on an iPod Touch.


Brian said...

Those "page numbers" aren't really page numbers. I don't have a kindle, but I get kindle books on occasion for reading on the iPod Touch. It is unfortunate that Amazon doesn't give you the actual page number for various spots in their ebooks. It makes it less likely for me to consider using their devices for reading books that I plan to use citations from.

See the very bottom of the book review for a note on how to convert Amazon Kindle page numbers to actual book page numbers.

Burkulater said...

Looks like a worthwhile read. Thank you for the review.

Meg Cusack said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I read the book and had been wanting to write down a summary of it for my reference. Now I don't need to!
Can you do a similar summary for the book, Old-Earth Creationism on Trial? I would love a concise summary of what exact evidence makes some Christians feel they need to believe in an old earth and what the young-earthers response to that is.

Unknown said...

yes, ness in his book "clouds of the lord" reveals a similar story to flew, such people are the militant atheists nightmare. people who were themselves indoctrinated into the atheist world view which has morphed into a type of religion, and, following the evidence, left atheism as a backward, primitive way of thinking and embraced the light and reality of "yes, there is a god". the real question is "who and what is god"? ness shows this to a degree on the evidence but ultimately we have to wait for more to be revealed.

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